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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Reading Group meeting 8/3/08


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We began with some informal discussion of the latest TV programme on ‘Tolkien and Mervyn Peake’. Most of us have suffered from watching earlier ‘documentaries’ about Tolkien which have often been trivial at best and downright insulting at their worst. Happily, the latest programme was neither, but was a thoughtful presentation devoted mostly to Tolkien, with some borrowings from the better parts of earlier films in which Tolkien himself had been interviewed and filmed. His decisive comment that he had never believed in absolute evil was particularly interesting and welcome to us all as we have been discussing this very point.
This initial interest in the latest film biography brought us to the vexed question of The Hobbit. Tim said he profoundly disliked the increasing tendency to describe the forthcoming film as a prequal – because it is not. Tim’s definition – that a prequal is a film made to tell the earlier story of an existing film illuminates how back-to-front the concept of a Hobbit ‘prequal’ must be, because this book was in existence long before LotR (books and films). We generally agreed with his point.
By some roundabout route which I can’t now remember we got on to the topic of this blog and all the reports. Ian certainly remarked that there is now a considerable amount of material in the Archive, and this led me to broach a matter I have been thinking about for a while. There is indeed a great deal of material in the Archives, and it seems a shame to leave it ‘gathering dust’ when it might make a useful resource. I wondered if there would be any support for collating it and offering a suitably edited compilation of all our discussions as a resource for the Tolkien Society Education pages. There was general agreement that this might be worthwhile but it will be a big job and will certainly need the consent of all the group members because those who are authors have contributed ideas to our discussions that they may want to copyright, or even withdraw if they are writing them up separately. This idea will not go any further for a while, but hopefully we will be able to share our deliberations with other interested Tolkien enthusiasts at some time in the future.
So we began our discussion with Ian’s reference to the assertion in the Tolkien and Peake programme that JRRT was writing a myth for 20th century England. Ian’s view was that myth becomes fantasy in the post-Enlightenment period, as science took over the task of aetiology – of ‘explaining’ how things are and were, and in some cases why (the teleological function of myth in some cases). The result of this science-based approach to epistemology (the theory of knowledge) has been to remove the anthropological need for myth and its ‘organic’ relationship to the society in which it arose.
Mark offered a balancing view – that even so, the archetypes of myth remain – the wise old guide and mentor, the young hero, etc. While Anne commented that Tolkien’s construction of a complete mythology suggested that he was a ‘control freak’. Mark and Mike both picked up the importance to Tolkien of fairy tales, and noted that fairy tales may be a kind of myth and are certainly the way children are introduced to the ideas that are most prominent in myth. They also define the power of story. In this context, Tim and Mark reiterated the point that myth is important as a device for explaining and describing the world.
After such an intense discussion, Anne mentioned her interest in the concept of Doriath – the Land of the Girdle, while Pat observed that much of the story so far in The Silmarillion describes a process of fragmentation, wandering, and re-meeting. Both Pat and Anne considered Feanor to be bad – like Morgoth. Although this seems somewhat radical Tim added a more precise definition, suggesting that Feanor is to the Elves as Morgoth is to the Valar. Laura noted Aule’s sympathy for Feanor as one creator to another, and extended this thought by defining Aule, Feanor and Morgoth as creators ‘gone to the bad’. Mike picked up this thread and remarked that Feanor and Sauron had put a good deal of themselves into their work to the extent that this almost extinguishes selfhood. Carol had made the point by email that Morgoth’s desire to possess the silmarils leads to him suffering pain but always wearing them. Anne noted that in these cases possessions are shown to become more important than relationships, which she took to be a very modern view.
Pat gave us the balancing view to this line of debate when she remarked that if Feanor had given up the Silmarils after the destruction of the Trees, their renewal from this sources could bring about the same destruction all over again. Ian agreed with this, commenting that the Trees had originally been poorly protected by the Valar from one of their own kind. This point was also raised by Carol in her e-contribution, and Mark supported this line of discussion by observing that Feanor was perhaps protecting the last light.
Laura took us on to consider the ominous words of Mandos in response to Feanor’s wild declaration that is he is forced to break the silmarils he will die of a broken heart ‘and be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman’. Mandos tells him ‘Not the first’. Mike thought that there was not much evidence of any thought for the greater good of all, and at this point I brought the discussion to a grinding halt by asking what we thought Tolkien was actually saying about sub-creation, given that his Tree and Leaf lecture addresses this point in some detail. Cue deep silence and profound thought. So we moved gently away from this.
We began a new discussion when Pat noted the use of a chamber of iron to protect the silmarils, although it wasn’t enough to keep out Morgoth. The fact that the silmarils were themselves ‘containers’ of crystal in which the light was preserved, led Angela, in her email contribution, to note that Feanor had asked Galadriel for a single hair, because it was said that the light of Laurelin was caught in her hair. Although she refused this, she later gave Gimli 3 of her hairs, which, like the light of the trees were to be set in imperishable crystal. It is a point worthy of more intense deliberation. Mark, however, questioned Galadriel’s motivation, and Ian responded by suggesting that the process of the Elves’ diminishing is demonstrated in the change that takes place in her in LotR. In The Silmarillion she is truly great. Mark noted that the Elves don’t want change, and Julie pointed out that they carry the Curse of Mandos because of the Kinslaying and this leads on to their diminishing.
Tim picked up the danger and power of Feanor’s oath that was never to be broken and related this as an echo in LotR to the Oathbreakers who betrayed their oath. Julie remarked that Elves begin to do bad things very quickly, while Laura sympathised with Olwe and his desire to protect his precious ships – another case of a sub-creator protecting his work. Ian noted that Feanor is constantly driving himself away from his kin, and Mike observed that this is an example of myth showing how things happened. Mark picked up the tribalising of the Elves which is intensified by the Kinslaying. Ian commented that at all times the Tolkien’s mythology, it is the elite class that mobilises – even the adventurous hobbits are from well-to-do families (except Sam). While we considered the class implications of this point, Laura remarked on grim and poignant description of the Orcs encountered by the Dwarves and by the Elves who had remained east of the Sea. She conjectured that the reason they were taken to be Elves turned wild and savage must have been because they still bore traces of elvishness that were recognisable. On this note of pathos, we came to the end of the afternoon and decide that for next time we would finish chapter 10 and move on to 11 and 12.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

I am not fussed about "copyright
". Quote whatever you like! I am only too pleased if I ever have a thought which anyone thinks is worth sharing!

Tolkien & Peake. I was really into Gormenghast c. 1978-80. But I think I was gripped by the sheer force of Peake's poetic prose rather than his overall vision. His actual writing is incredibly good. But the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts. Peake was a war artist and one of the first amongst the Allied forces to enter,I forget which one of the concentration camps, but one of the especially notorious ones. This experience seems to have broken his mind and he was never a totally sane man ever again. There is no coherent morally-driven understanding of the world in Peake's Gormenghast books. They seem to be about the triumph of the fittest. The weak go to the wall. You'd never guess they were by the same author as "Mr Pye".

2:44 PM  

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